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Ensure that permits protect Long Island's surf clam fishery

This is the Heaven Sent, one of the

This is the Heaven Sent, one of the last two independent clammers on Long Island. (April 27, 2012) Credit: Daniel Goodrich

The struggle over the surf clam fishery off Long Island offers an up-close-and-personal look at a broader question about what we take from the ocean: What's more important, preserving the resource for the future and harvesting efficiently in the present, or the livelihood of small, independent operators who find it increasingly difficult to make a living off the limited amount of fish and shellfish that their permits allow?

As painful as it may be for some to hear, preservation of the resource and harvest efficiency seem like the goals that best serve the common good. We now have a chance to test that theory.

In the case of the surf clams in the Atlantic off Long Island, the numbers are simple. The state's Department of Environmental Conservation allows a total annual catch of 300,000 bushels. There are exactly 22 permits in existence, each allowing the holder to harvest 13,363.36 bushels. At last year's price, each permit can bring in a gross revenue of $133,633.60

Until recently, each permit was attached to a specific boat. If you had two permits, you had to use two boats. But it costs a lot to maintain and fuel a fishing vessel. The system would be more efficient and less costly to permit holders if multiple permits could be combined in one boat. The existing inefficiency helps explain why holders of five of the 22 permits last year weren't even using them.

So J. Lee Snead, who represents most of the permit holders, lobbied for changes in the law: to remove the requirement that ties each permit to a single boat -- and to allow "cooperative harvesting." That means Permit Holder A can delegate to Permit Holder B the right to harvest the clams allowed under A's permit.

Assemb. Fred W. Thiele Jr. (I-Sag Harbor), who deals regularly with local fisherfolk wanting to make the industry more economically viable, thought it made sense. Sen. Lee Zeldin (R-Shirley) thought it helped everyone. The DEC pushed back but couldn't make a strong case for how the bill would hurt its enforcement efforts. The bill drew no significant opposition and passed easily in both houses last year -- with one little hook: It sunsets at the end of 2013. The theory is that those changes will make the industry more efficient, without affecting the overall harvest.

Now a recent Newsday investigation showed that companies with links to two New Jersey brothers, Leroy and Martin Truex, hold at least 15 of the 22 New York permits. That's the kind of consolidation that small operators around the country always fear will result from tradable permits, usually known as "individual fishing quotas." The persistent question among small operators is: If anyone can buy a permit on the open market, won't the big guys always end up with the rights to all the fish? For the rest of us, the question is: How bad is consolidation? Is it bad at all?

The sunset provision in the new law gives us a chance to find out. By the end of 2013, we'll have had two-and-a-half years of data under the revised system. That's the time for the DEC and the State Legislature to look at the numbers and hold hearings, if necessary, to determine how it has worked for local harvesters, for state regulators, for consumer prices -- and for the future of the resource.